Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers were revered coaches in charge of personnel for their respective teams, the Pistons and Clippers. Both asserted their power as NBA intellects who mattered. Van Gundy appeared in the NBA Finals in 2009. One year earlier, Doc Rivers won the NBA Finals in 2008. Rivers appeared in the Finals in 2010 and lost in seven games. Both were experienced leaders who had a firm grasp on the league in a narrow window, before the Warriors brand of basketball intoxicated everyone.
And yet both Van Gundy and Rivers had their player personnel title stripped. Doc Rivers remained to coach the Clippers with someone else handling personnel. Stan Van Gundy walked away from such a demotion.
The coach who makes personnel decisions as well as coaching his team is a dying breed. The modern game simply cannot serve two masters. Coach. Or be the President. You can’t do both. So choose.
Stan Van Gundy did. He chose to walk away once his Presidency was taken from him. It was rational though a power move on its face. He didn’t want to coach players he didn’t want to coach. He had a very specific idea on what he needed for a team to be successful. He wanted input on the moves the team was making. Like all of us, he wanted control. His acquisition of Blake Griffin was considered a gamble considering Griffin is injury prone and isn’t a face of the franchise player who can lead a team. He is a second best player on a team deferring to a star. His game isn’t skilled enough and he’s passive, not much of the alpha dog in him. It wasn’t extraordinary getting rid of Tobias Harris but in return Blake Griffin’s contract is exorbitant, something the Pistons are stuck with. For the next three seasons Griffin is due $35 million on average and in the fourth year has an option for $38 million. By then he will be 33 years old and definitely on the downside. Moving him will be a challenge and so the question is how do you build around him?
If the Blake experiment doesn’t work and the Pistons are hamstrung for the next five years they will be in survival mode instead of compete mode. That will be the Stan Van Gundy legacy. As for the Stan Van Gundy blueprint, he wants a team of his own creation and that kind of business model is a failed plan.
A coach has a consuming job. Teach basketball. Create action and strategy. Embrace a cooperative work environment where trust is the primary principle. Compete always.
A President of Basketball Ops has a consuming job. Match players and their skills to an identity. Assess and evaluate fit. Evaluate maturity. Check the box of starter, role player, 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 14 minutes, rarely plays, always plays, weak, tough, scorer, defender, passer, streaky, skilled. Excel at the draft. Have a knack for free agency.
You can’t do both. The coach is worried about wins. That is how he keeps his job or loses it. The President is worried about flexibility and the future. The coach and front office have competing interests. It is schizophrenia as an art form.
Stan Van Gundy needed wins. His Detroit experience was bordering on failure and you can spin it about injuries but it came down to personnel. The players were not versatile enough or good enough.
As the President, look at his draft picks.
2014: Spencer Dinwiddie. Played in Detroit for two years. Had a breakout year for the Nets this year. Van Gundy passed on Nikola Jokic and Jordan Clarkson.
2015: Stanley Johnson. Johnson has been underwhelming, no correction. He’s been God awful. Of the 2015 lottery picks, he has the worst fg % (37%). Van Gundy passed on Devin Booker, Larry Nance Jr. In the second round, Van Gundy greenlighted Darrun Hillard, another grotesque shot maker (37%) averaging 3.2 points in his career.
2016: Henry Ellenson barely plays and was the 18th pick of the Pistons. In the second round, Detroit drafted another non-factor. Michael Gbinije was in the NBA one year.
2017: Luke Kennard could actually put the ball in the hole and played 73 games, 20 minutes per. He had a respectable rookie year. But the number 13 pick, the one after Kennard was selected, was Donovan Mitchell. Van Gundy passed on local kid Kyle Kuzma.
There is nothing about Van Gundy’s Detroit residency that screams out loud he succeeded. Either on the player acquisition side or on the coaching side. Only one playoff appearance to show for it and that was a sweep. His swing for the fences Blake Griffin gamble went down in flames too. Why should he have kept his personnel job? We talk about players who have problems understanding their capacities, what they are good at. Coaches aren’t immune to overreaching confidence either. But the proof is what famed Piston coach Chuck Daly used to say. You are your record.
Stan Van Gundy is a big name in coaching just as Doc Rivers is. Van Gundy is remembered for his Dwight Howard years. He can be enthusiastic and he can be pessimistic and sad. He is always honest. Because of the past which the NBA romanticizes, he will be mentioned for jobs in the future. But the control Stan Van Gundy is seeking just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s coaching or it’s Van Gundy retirement.